This is the primary self-search for an identity and self. What exactly do I believe in? What is, or can be, my faith? Who is denying me the right to paint, colour, act and sing? And in the process, is my right to paint, colour, act and sing that god, the one I am told I must believe in, being taken away?
As a result of all these queries, not copying, not running behind or following, and certainly, not reaffirming and agreeing are the only options left for me. Because creativity is always the voice of dissent.
However, voicing this dissent is not new. I will elaborate with an example from my latest book ‘The Dancing Lama’. which explores the folklore of the Western Himalayas from the female point of view. As I look for myself in the creations of the past, I discover that in folklore, women assertively define their difference.
The examples I am about to narrate here are from the story of Ram and Sita.
In my travels through the North-western Himalayas — Spiti and Kinnaur to be precise — I found several versions of the popular tale. I also realised that women have been trying to give their own interpretation and form to these well-known tales, adding the local milieu in which they exist and the culture that they subsist on to the more familiar narrative. Going through these stories and their interpretations, it is difficult to say whether the epic came first or whether these stories were already prevalent and emerged as the epic we know through a process of refinement.
The story of Sita’s abduction by Ravana
a woman does not cringe
with fear or defeat.
Before the narration of any of the stories, a short poem is sung. These few lines are said to carry the gist of the story to come. The lines just recited are sung before embarking on the story of Sita’s abduction.
This particular story (narrated in Chango, a village of upper Kinnaur) begins with the arrival of Ram and Sita to the jungle where they must live for the next fourteen years- Panchavati as we know it. The rendition highlights Sita’s loneliness in the jungle. Sita misses Mithila and Ayodhya — the court, the palaces, her friends. She misses the festivals, all connected with farming (she is the daughter of the earth), she also misses her husband, who is always away hunting, or protecting rishis from demons. This reflects the real loneliness of the women of the region. The men have been migrating for centuries: for work, as shepherds and for adventure. Since the wide-spread conversion to Buddhism in the area, men have also been leaving their loved ones when they take the vows of monkhood. Even pilgrimages are usually performed only by men because of the belief that a pilgrimage by a man earns benefits for the entire family.
Sita is lonely, and the narrator dwells for a long while on this, describing how she misses dance and music and how she has never had to be alone in her life.
In her solitude appears Ravana! The king of the Kuber Nagari is lonely!
But why is the king of the Golden Town of Lanka lonely? Because the king, who possesses everything, does not have the time or the peace to practice his music. Shiv Bhakta Ravana is also a fine percussionist and playing the Pakhawaj is one of his ways of appeasing Shiva. He is in Panchavati not to avenge his sister Shupnakha, but to huntfor a secluded spot to practice Pakhawaj.
So here are two lonely people, one yearning for the hustle and bustle of court life, and the other running away from just that.
Ravana sits down to play, unaware of a hut with a beautiful woman in it, nearby. Sita hears the music and emerges from the hut to find out who this accomplished musician is, in this godforsaken place.
So beautiful and rhythmic is the percussion that Sita begins to dance. Seeing her beauty, her rhythmic dance, her unfaltering step, Ravana falls in love with her and decides to abduct her. He gets up with the Pakhawaj slung around his waist and playing it all the while, walks away till he reaches the Pushpak Viman, parked some distance away. Sita is so mesmerized by the rhythm, that she follows him and does not come out of the trance till she is in Lanka.
The entire narration, is an assertion of a woman’s right to choice, her wish to have a life beyond her husband and to sing, dance, play — all creative activities. What is most important is not the fact that she worships her husband who is her god etc., but her wish to be happy and the strength she finds to step on the road that leads to this happiness.
There is no villain in the story, no ulterior designs or motives. There is no Lakshmana rekha or morality code that Sita breaks, no woman of easy virtue wishing to ensnare two upper class, high principled men who gets her nose cut off and then begs her brother to abduct a woman to avenge his sister. Woman here exists as an independent being. She is not a possession and no ‘honour’ is connected with her.
This is a straight story of love — for music, for dance, for good living and for the man who can provide all this.The protagonist, the narrator herself, knows that as a woman writer she has no heavenly guide, just a firm faith in the nobility of the human heart. The story is there for her to tell and for her to reinterpret. As she does that, she breaks down the sacrosanct myth and from the disarray, she builds a human story.
More wonderful stories from Himachal on our Many Ramayanas all this month.
Noor Zaheer writes both in English and Hindi. She has written My God is a Woman, Mere Hisse Ki Roshnai (Hindi Academy Award), Barh Urraitte, Surkh Karavan Ke Humsafar, Ret Par Khoon, Patthar Ke Sainik, and Aaj Ke Naam. Noor has translated Peter Shaffer’s A Royal Hunt of the Sun and Tennessee William’s A Street Car Named Desire to Urdu for legendary theatre director Ibrahim Alkazi, Shakespeare’s Titus to Hindustani for National School of Drama and adapted M F Hussain’s autobiography for stage for Nadira Babbar. Noor has worked intensively in Himachal Pradesh on the tribal performance tradition and Buddhist influence. She is also the recipient of the Times Fellowship, the Senior Fellowship of the Culture Department, Govt. of India, and was writer in Residence at the Sahitya Akademy. At present she is translating early women’s writings from Urdu to English for the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts and working on her next novel in English.